ANDY STEWART, the kilted
minstrel, was the Englishman's image of Scotland in the Fifties and Sixties.
Stewart's television performances, on The White Heather Club, and in
particular at Hogmanay, featured a swinging kilt, topped by a boyish-faced
lad who gave out musical propaganda for the hills, lochs, islands - and that
purple heather, from which an earlier comic singer, Harry Lauder, had
obtained so much mileage in the first three decades of the century.
But Stewart, a schoolmaster's son, never intended to be a new Lauder. He was
studying for a career in the theatre when his gift for mimicry forced itself
out. To me and others who caught him at the beginning of his career, he
seemed like a Scottish version of Andy Hardy, the perky, eager, jump- about
American youngster portrayed by Mickey Rooney. Stewart could 'jouk' about,
just as Lauder had with his tartan plaid and crooked walking-stick years
before, and he landed on this theme at a time when it was becoming old-hat
and despised by the postwar generation. The fact that Stewart succeeded in
combating the anti-Lauder campaigners is proof of his talents, energy and
fondness for the Brigadoon-style image that exists in the minds of
song-writers and tourists to Scotland.
The White Heather Club, produced by BBC Scotland and televised throughout
the network from the mid-Fifties to the early Sixties, was Stewart's niche.
This was the ubiquitous Scottish ceilidh (Highland sing-song and party)
offered to, and accepted by, television controllers in the Fifties. You
sang, you cracked a joke about the kilt, and you sat round at tables with
small glasses of whisky and lots of shortbread, and you pretended to be
having a great end-of-the-year celebration until the maudlin and sentimental
came in with the midnight bells. Millions loved these televised parties,
usually from a cardboard studio in Glasgow or from a hotel in the Highlands.
It was a rural way of life, beamed to urban Britain.
Stewart took his White Heather Club into the Empire Theatre, in Glasgow, a
notorious graveyard for English comics, and packed the place for months on
end. He took his unit to the United States, then to Canada, Australia and
New Zealand. He won over a Royal Variety Performance in London mimicking
Presley singing 'Donald, Where's Your Troosers?' (Stewart is said to have
written that number in 10 minutes as he sat, minus troosers, in the lavatory
of a recording studio.)
Recordings were Stewart's great stand-by. He wrote the words of 'A Scottish
Soldier' ('There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier, who wandered far away
and soldiered far away . . . There was none bolder . . .'), linked them to a
pipe tune, and sold 3 million records to stay for over a year in the Top 50
in the United States.
Alas, bouts of ill-health and not just the passing trends in show business
were the enemy. The fresh boyish image of the idol of the 1950s was replaced
by a slight frailty and stumbling words. His occasional appearance on
television worried those who knew the real Andy Stewart, the brash and
confident lad who belted out the songs of Scotland at everybody's favourite
Stewart was almost a constant visitor to hospital wards. He was in and out
between 1972 and 1978 and in 1986, and again, three years later, he had
bypass surgery on his heart. The boyish comic singer was showing his age.
When he hit his early fifties, he could easily have been taken for a man in
his seventies. After two heart bypasses, Stewart's doctor told him to look
on 'work' as 'a dirty word', but he kept going, even touring to Australia.
He admitted: 'I would need a psychiatrist to tell me just why I carry on.'
He was set to top the bill in a Pride of the Clyde variety-revue at the
Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow, from next Monday. He was planning yet another
tour of North America. And, just the night before he died, he was on the
stage of the Usher Hall, in Edinburgh, doing his act with other artists to
raise funds for the building of a children's hospice in Scotland.
Offstage, Stewart was typically Scottish, down-to-earth, dour-looking at
times, but always with a twinkle in the eye, and a penchant for Robert
Burns. A family man, short of build (he was 5ft 7in), and a grandfather, he
lived variously at Glasgow, Banchory, near Aberdeen, and at Arbroath, the
fishing town in Angus on Scotland's east coast, where he died only hours
after giving his last performance.